In Australia in recent years, it has become increasingly common to recite a very brief form of words called an Acknowledgement of Country at the beginning of public events.
It’s a simple tradition, a show of respect, conducted at local council meetings, universities, schools, conferences and conventions, etc., that acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land now called Australia — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The person bringing the acknowledgement is expected to know the name of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation who have the connection to that country upon which the event is being held. So, for example, if the event is being held in Sydney, the emcee or convener would recite something like this:
“We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the country on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their elders past, present and emerging.”
I teach at a college in Sydney, and we use this acknowledgement at our events, including the first chapel service of each semester as well as special events and conferences. It seems to us it’s the least that can be done to acknowledge the history and culture of the original inhabitants of the land.
But then last week I saw a breathless Facebook post by someone expressing shock that this tradition had become entrenched in the education system in Australia. He posted:
“Today, I heard of a university course in Australia where all students have to give recognition to the Aboriginal people as the original owners of the land and give respect to them…”
He went on to ask whether students would fail their course if they objected on conscientious grounds. He didn’t point out why a student might object on such grounds. But he didn’t have to. His friends’ knew where he was coming from and their comments said it all.
What followed was the most disturbing mix of racism, ignorance and religious paranoia.
One man persistently questioned whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did indeed experience discrimination and racism today, demanding ‘proof’ from anyone who suggested they did.
Another questioned whether the reported massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during the Frontier Wars had indeed occurred in the numbers being reported. He claimed they had been inflated by “black armband propagandists”.
Several people claimed that Acknowledgement of Country was yet another way to make white Australians feel guilty “for something that may have happened to someone by someone else long since passed away.”
According to the comments, Acknowledgement of Country is “a forced religious ritual” and a “quasi-religious gesture”. It was referred to as “pantheistic”, “animistic”, “reverse racism”, “PC on steroids” and “a recent invention involving ancestor worship and is performed in a hegemonic sense to encourage servility from non-aboriginal listeners.”
One commenter declared, “The concept is steeped in pagan spirituality which includes ancestor worship. That’s why the reference to elders past and present. Also note a supposed ‘connection to country’ which is based on animistic beliefs.”
This set off several other people who wanted similar recitations at the beginning of public events to acknowledge God as the original owner and custodian of the earth.
The real doozy was when one person commented that Acknowledgement of Country was “symptomatic of the decline of Western civilization as it rejects its Christian foundations and slides back into paganism”.
Bear in mind, all this outrage was unleashed at the mere thought that the land upon which we are conducting our events might have been originally owned by Indigenous peoples and that those peoples might have an ongoing sense of connection to it.
To suggest that a formal acknowledgement of that fact was tantamount to ancestor worship or animism or voodoo or juju or any other nonsense is ignorant at best and racist at worst.
Paying respect to elders past and present is no different to singing God Save the Queen, an anthem that acknowledges the monarch’s sovereignty and thereby her ancestors and their connection to former colonies, now nations within the Commonwealth. But no one suggests that singing it is ancestor worship or animism.
Likewise, acknowledging the original custodians of Australian land is simply respectful of the long history of intergenerational presence and connection. The nonsense about it being ‘quasi-religious’ or ‘steeped in pagan spirituality’ is utterly embarrassing to those making such a claim.
While I was reeling at that post, I was hit with another example of gross disrespect shown to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It concerned the reaction to the impending closure of Uluru, formerly called Ayers Rock.
For over 30 years, the traditional owners of Uluru have been asking tourists to respect their law and culture by not climbing the rock, but these requests have been largely ignored.
Tourists would walk right past this sign (above) and clamber up the face of the rock in droves. In 2010, former professional football player Sam Newman even boasted on radio that he’d hit a golf ball off the top of the rock. He was showing solidarity with a French woman who, that same year, had decided to perform a striptease in the same location. As a result, the traditional owners have decreed that on October 26 the chain hand-rail will be removed and all climbing will be banned.
Well, this news has motivated unprecedented numbers of tourists to flock to Uluru to climb the rock before the closure comes into effect. The disrespect is palpable.
Furthermore, this has unleashed outrage among some commentators and politicians, claiming the ban was “ridiculous” and that there was no reason why tourists shouldn’t be allowed to climb Uluru. Some scoffed at the suggestion that the rock is “sacred”.
Last year, the Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope responded well when he compared trampling on Uluru with tourists climbing over the Byzantine dome of the Australian War Memorial, a building considered sacred by many Australians.
Why is Acknowledgement of Country a quasi-religious act of ancestor worship, but God Save the Queen isn’t?
Why is it alright to consider the Australian War Memorial sacred, but it’s laughable that Uluru could be considered such?
I think it’s a potent mix of ignorance, racism, and religious paranoia that leads people to think that closing Uluru and delivering an Acknowledgement of Country spell the decline of Western civilization.
If a civilization can be damaged by paying respect to others, it wasn’t so civil to begin with.
Acknowledgement of Country is an act of respect, nothing more. It says that we accept the fact we are in a place with a history and story far beyond the 220 years of Western settlement in Australia. It says to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that we want to journey together into the future.
Likewise with refusing to climb Uluru.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know the pain of exclusion and ignorance. Acknowledging them in events is a small way to end this exclusion. As the folks at Reconciliation Australia say,
It recognises the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first custodians of this land and, importantly, promotes awareness of the history and culture of Indigenous people. This increased awareness will help us create a more united Australia, that celebrates and embraces our First Australians.
 A Welcome to Country is different. It can only be undertaken by an elder from the nation that has traditional ownership of the land upon which you’re meeting. This can be done through speech, dance, song or ceremony.